The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety wrongfully revoked a driver’s license and must pay his attorney’s fees, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals recently ruled.
“DPS constantly makes mistakes or doesn’t follow through with the law,” said Tulsa criminal defense attorney Stephen Cale. “It takes diligence to make sure that it is doing the right thing.”
The driver was arrested in November 2014 for driving under the influence. About a year and a half later, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) issued an order revoking the driver’s license. In April 2016, DPS issued a new order setting aside the revocation because of a newly decided case controlling the driver’s case.
Even though the driver’s license revocation had been set aside, DPS issued a notice to the driver in June 2016 stating that his license had been revoked for 180 days and that it was unlawful for him to drive during that period. This apparently was a clerical error on DPS’ part. The notice also included a list of conditions to be completed and fees to be paid by the driver in order to reinstate his license after the 180-day period ended.
The driver notified his attorney, who bought a motor vehicle report. The report indicated that the driver was under revocation. So, the driver filed an appeal in the District Court.
When DPS learned of the appeal, it sent the driver’s attorney a letter stating that it acknowledged receipt of the appeal and that its records had been updated to reflect that the order was set aside. The letter was not signed, and no order setting aside the revocation was attached.
The driver’s attorney purchased another motor vehicle report. It confirmed that the revocation had been removed from the driver’s record. The District Court held a hearing on the driver’s appeal in July 2016. After the hearing, the court sustained the driver’s petition and set aside the revocation of the driver’s license. DPS did not appeal that order.
The driver’s attorney then filed an application for attorney’s fees and costs. He cited a statute that entitles a person in a proceeding brought before any state administrative tribunal to be awarded court costs, witness fees, and attorney fees if the tribunal or court determines that the proceeding was brought without a reasonable basis or was frivolous.
After hearing, the district court found that DPS revoked the driver’s license without a reasonable basis. Therefore, the driver was entitled to attorney’s fees and costs under the statute. The court awarded $6,799.66 in attorney’s fees and $1,500 in expert witness fees, for a total of $8,299.06. DPS appealed to the Court of Civil Appeals.
The question of whether a party is entitled to attorney’s fees is a legal question, said Tulsa criminal defense attorney Stephen Cale. Under those circumstances, the appeals court will review the legal question independently, without giving deference to the trial court.
On the other hand, whether the attorney fee award is reasonable is based on whether the trial court abused its discretion. Reversal for an abuse of discretion occurs when the lower court ruling has no rational basis in the evidence or where it is based upon erroneous legal conclusions, said Tulsa criminal defense attorney Stephen Cale.
On appeal to the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals, DPS argued that the trial court made a legal error by expanding the “without reasonable basis” language of the attorney’s fees statute to include clerical errors. The appellate court pointed to the fact that DPS revoked the driver’s license even after case law directly controlling the driver’s case directed that the revocation be set aside. DPS did not dispute that its actions were unjustified.
The determination of whether a particular action is reasonable is within the trial court’s discretion, the appellate court said. In the driver’s case, the trial court found that DPS’ clerical error was not a reasonable basis to revoke the driver’s license. The appellate court agreed.
DPS also argued that the case was moot when it corrected the driver’s record, and the district court appeal hearing should not have been heard. The Court of Civil Appeals disagreed.
Citing a previous case, the appellate court said that, “voluntary cessation of challenged conduct does not deprive a tribunal of its power to conduct appellate review.” A claim may be mooted when later events make it “absolutely clear” that the alleged wrongful behavior cannot reasonably be expected to recur, the appeals court said.
But here, DPS revoked the driver’s license despite its knowledge of controlling case law. The letter from DPS that claimed to have corrected the record was unsigned and did not include any official set-aside order. At the attorney’s fees hearing, the driver’s attorney noted the difficulty he had communicating with DPS and argued that he proceeded with the appeal so he could get an order from the court and “feel a little more secure from the standpoint of my client’s welfare in the future.”
The district court judge had noted that after DPS corrected the mistake, nothing happened “except that you showed up and the two of you argued for two hours about what happened in the past and why you should or shouldn’t be here instead of saying, ‘Judge, we fess up. There should be in order so that this man isn’t stopped wrongfully.’” So, the appellate court determined that the driver’s appeal was not mooted by DPS’ correction and that the district court judge rightfully heard the driver’s appeal.
DPS suggested that the driver’s attorney could’ve called DPS directly to attempt to resolve the matter. The appellate court noted, however, that the record shows that the driver’s attorney had a difficult time resolving the issues and communicating with DPS. It said that it was not unreasonable for the driver’s attorney to file a petition to correct DPS’ actions.
The appellate court also rejected DPS’s claim that the court should not have awarded fees because the driver was unharmed by the error. The appellate court said that the statute concerning attorneys fees does not require harm for an attorney’s fees award. “Even if it did, the trial court could reasonably conclude that the uncertainty and stress caused by the [notice from DPS] was harmful in itself,” the appeals court said.
As its final argument, DPS claimed that there wasn’t enough evidence to support the amount of the trial court’s award. DPS agreed that the hourly rates submitted by the driver’s attorney were reasonable. The court record shows that the court awarded less than requested, excluding any time expended by driver’s attorney before receipt of the notice, as well as time spent by the driver’s attorney responded to DPS’s application for attorneys fees. DPS presented no argument or evidence to support his claim that the hours expended were unreasonable. Accordingly, the appellate court found that the attorney’s fees award but is not an abuse of discretion.
If DPS is trying to revoke your driver’s license, call the Cale Law Office at 918-277-4800 to schedule your free initial consultation.